Published Mar 16, 2018 on Lyra Blog
By Matt Boone, LCSW
Your company has a mission statement. Why not you?
Mission statements help companies communicate why they exist and what they are going after. They also help the leaders and the employees of a company keep their eye on the ball.
A personal mission statement is similar. It’s about who you want to be and how you want to act in every moment of your life. In essence, a personal mission statement is about your values.
Why is it useful to know your values? Values are like personally chosen life directions. They are your inner compass. When things get hard, we tend to lose sight of what’s important. Our actions can be driven by our immediate reactions (e.g., irritability) or old habits (e.g., procrastinating). Values serve as a guide to help us know what to do and how to be.
So how do you identify your values? First, think of values as something you can construct based on your life experience, not necessarily something you already have. They are not things. They are simply words, phrases, and statements that serve as guides for your behavior.
Take out a piece of paper. Start at the top of the page with some area of importance in your life: family, friends, career, love, leisure, community, health and fitness, spirituality, or some other domain you would like to do some work on.
Then take a moment to think of a time when you were at your best in this area – when you were being the person you would want to be every day if you could. In writing, describe this moment in as much detail as you can, focusing on what you were like, what you did, and what your impact was on the world around you – people, places, things. If you need to close your eyes and imagine yourself in that situation to make it real for you, go ahead.
Have you got it? Okay, now go back over what you wrote and pull out the words that describe you and what you were doing. Were you engaged? Focused? Caring and kind? Were you tenacious and hard-working? Did you behave compassionately, curiously, or thoughtfully? You’re looking for words that describe ways of being in the world. In essence, you are looking for action words.
I suggest you focus on action, and qualities of acting, because that’s what you have the most control over. If you make your values about what you feel – happy, excited, motivated, etc. – then you are creating a trap for yourself. It’s hard to choose your emotions. But you are always free to choose your actions.
Maybe the right words aren’t in what you wrote. If you need some ideas, look at this list below and see if any of the words resonate with you. Pick a few that capture how you were in that moment, or how you’d like to be in similar future moments:
Adventurous, accepting, open, curious, hard-working, steady, strong, empathic, loving, caring, passionate, focused, friendly, fun-loving, humorous, energetic, persistent, engaged, thoughtful, collaborative, calm, altruistic, ambitious, authentic, bold, forgiving, generous, graceful, grateful, honest, kind, persistent, responsible, self-aware, trusting, committed.
The list could go on and on. If one of these words seems close, but not entirely apt, open a thesaurus and look for other words. Don’t worry about doing it perfectly. This is a rough draft – it can always be revised. Authoring your values is something you can come back to over and over again throughout your life, fine-tuning as you go based on your experience.
Now create a paragraph that captures how you want to be in this area of your life in an ongoing way. You might write something like the following:
In my relationships, I would like to be open, accepting and compassionate. I want to do my best to be curious about what’s going on in the lives of the people I care about and to share what’s going on in my life. I want to be the sort of person that other people turn to when they are having hard times. I’d also like to be fun-loving and generous, to be the kind of person who’s up for an adventure at a moment’s notice. In my work relationships, I want to be collaborative and hard-working – I want to be the kind of team player that other people want to work with.
When you’re done, look over what you’ve written and revise as necessary. Again, don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Just capture the essence of how you want to be or act on an ongoing basis.
Remember, this is aspirational. You won’t be like this at all times. Think of your values as your compass, with North being the direction you’ve chosen. Whenever you discover that you have deviated from North (and you will), you just need to take note, turn back, and start moving in that direction again.
When you get a chance, choose a few other domains in your life about which to write similar statements. Or you might just want to write a global statement about how you want to be across all domains of your life. There’s no perfect way to do this.
Values are not goals. You can’t achieve or obtain them. For example, you can never be finished with being curious or loving. Values are chosen life directions; goals are places we might arrive as we move in those directions. And by all means, create some goals related to your values! For example, if your value is to be open to experience and try new things, you might have a goal to take a cooking class, travel somewhere you’ve never been before, or befriend someone who seems very different from you.
Values are not feelings. Though some of the words we use for values can also be used for feelings, values and feelings are different. You may not feel adventurous all the time, but you can act in an adventurous way whenever you choose.
Values are self-chosen. Your values are yours. You get to choose them. It’s common to adopt the values of your family, community, or spiritual tradition. If you do, make sure you are making a choice to do so, not because it’s easy, familiar, or you feel you have to.
The way you know if a value works for you is if it helps bring vitality and meaning to your life, even when things are hard. For example, if your value is to be someone your friends can rely on during hard times, you might hear some painful details about their lives, details that might evoke sadness, anger, or other difficult feelings. Values dignify this pain. They help us carry those feelings more lightly because we know we are carrying them for a reason. Values connect everything we do, large or small, to something bigger, something deeply important to us. And they should be the foundation of any personal mission statement.